Greenwashing in the Travel and Tourism Industry

Ever since “greenwashing” officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, the definition of “disinformation that is disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image” has an instantly recognizable term. There is no question that the ominous presence of this “bête verte” is increasingly problematic to businesses and regulators, while NGO’s and consumer protection groups navigate through a maze of hazy green claims in products and services.

Much of the greenwashing accusations or “sins”, as creatively articulated by TerraChoice’s The Sins of Greenwahsing”, have been focused on consumer household and personal use products. However, there has been no shortage of eco–criticism for the highly fragmented and mostly unregulated global travel and tourism industry.  The majority of travel businesses are small and medium size enterprises, but collectively they are energy, carbon, water and waste intensive, while mass tourism is highly disruptive to the natural environment. In an industry with  eight main sectors and approximately twenty eight subsectors, it is not difficult to make environmental claims that are light on accuracy yet can neither be easily substantiated nor discredited.  While the perpetrators may generally be well intentioned but uninformed tourism operators, large publically traded companies like EasyJet from the UK have also been reprimanded for misleading advertising.

The causes for greenwashing in travel are no different than in other sectors. Businesses run the risk of falling into the greenwash trap while attempting to increase sales to create differentiation in a highly  commoditized travel market with an increasingly desegregated supply chain; when it seeks to enhance its reputation by demonstrating environmental stewardship for both its operations at home and  in destinations; when a top down mandated approach for risk management fails to embed sustainability in the organizational culture; or when  enthusiastic  grassroots bottom-up initiatives hurry environmental programs without proper capacity building or communication strategy. The greenwashing fallout ranges from the erosion of public trust of tourism eco-labels, to reputational damage both at the enterprise level and whole sectors like hotels, airlines, cruises and car rentals. 

In the recent workshop I did for the 2011 Sustainable Tourism Conference in Bermuda organized by the Caribbean Tourism Organization, I played with the idea of TerraChoice’s “Seven Sins” for the travel industry.  The audience had fun thinking of examples of green infractions in destinations, transportation and accommodation.  Here are a few examples of the “green travelling sins”:

1.    The hidden trade-offA claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.

A hotel states that it uses solar panels for water heating, but the property has no water conservation program. They are therefore, depleting the communities’ water table making the tourism operation unsustainable in the long-term. 

2.    No proof – An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.  

 Many restaurants and hotels claim to serve organic food. However, they don’t state from where it is sourced.  They may also claim that towel re-use is good for the environment, but they seldom provide evidence of how this is measured, especially if housekeeping changes them daily anyway!

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